The Good Shepherd

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The Good Shepherd
Review (8/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

At one time, Robert DeNiro was a groundbreaking actor. He was a chameleon who physically transformed himself for legendary performances in films such as The Untouchables, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. He was the ultimate mobster, who delivered powerhouse performances in films such as The Godfather II, Goodfellas and Casino. He was an icon, and was one of the finest actors of his generation.

During the past few years, I have often wondered what happened to that Robert DeNiro. Gone is the icon and in his place is the Robert DeNiro of films such as Showtime, Hide and Seek and Godsend. Sure, he has made a few amusing comedies, but I do not think that I am the only person who wondered why the Godfather had decided to Meet the Fockers.

When I first heard about DeNiro's involvement in The Good Shepherd, I was optimistic that Robert DeNiro, the icon, was re-emerging. Billed as "The True Story of the Birth of the CIA", directed by Robert DeNiro and featuring performances by DeNiro, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, John Turturro and Michael Gambon, The Good Shepherd has been one of the more widely anticipated films of 2006.

The Good Shepherd tells the story of Edward Wilson (Damon), a key figure in the development of the counter-intelligence section of the CIA. Loosely based on the life story of CIA agent James Jesus Angleton, the film documents Wilson's rise through the international intelligence community. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, depicting Wilson's days as a member of Yale's Skull and Bones Society (whose actual membership includes former CIA Director George Bush Sr.), as a member of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, as a member of the newly-formed Central Intelligence Agency and as one of the masterminds behind the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba. In addition to telling the story of Wilson's career, it tells the parallel story of his failed marriage to Margaret "Clover" Russell (Jolie) and the difficult upbringing of his son, Edward Jr.

The Good Shepherd is a long and methodical film. Much like an extensive covert operation, it requires an investment of time, patience and attention from the viewer. Every detail, regardless of how small, is significant. And as the final credits roll, the viewer realizes that they have spent 2 1/2 hours watching a film that raises more questions than it provides answers. Far from the spoon-fed fare that film audiences have come to expect, The Good Shepherd demands that its viewers think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

The primary strength of The Good Shepherd is in its casting. Matt Damon delivers a powerful performance as the reserved, studied Edward Wilson. It is interesting to note that Leonardo DiCaprio was originally cast in the Damon role; as much as I enjoy DiCaprio as an actor, I cannot help but think that the film would have suffered with him in the lead role. He would have been far too intense for the Wilson role, which required the more restrained performance that only someone like Damon or perhaps Edward Norton could bring to the screen.

The film also benefits from strong supporting performances from Angelina Jolie as Wilson's long-suffering wife and John Turturro as his right-hand man. DeNiro has a small but important supporting role. I also enjoyed watching the performance by Billy Crudup, who I believe is one of the more talented but unfortunately underappreciated actors in Hollywood (in part by his own choice, as he has spurned several roles which would have brought him mainstream success). The film's only misfit was the cameo appearance by Joe Pesci, which had no apparent purpose other than to provide DeNiro's longtime friend with a paycheque.

The film's story is simple, but the storyline can be difficult to follow if careful attention is not paid to the nuances of the plot. Every character in the film (with the exception of Pesci) is significant. The film's suspense derives from the fact that the viewer never knows which characters can and cannot be trusted. In a way, the viewer is placed in the shoes of a spy, compelled to rely upon their instinct and their powers of observation and forced to make a judgment about whether to believe the story they are being told about each character.

The Good Shepherd is not a film for everyone. Its pace is slow. It contains none of the action or stunts that we have come to expect from spies such as James Bond or Jason Bourne. It requires the viewer's unwavering participation in order to fully experience the film. For those of you who prefer clear plotlines and neat endings, this is not the film for you. Some reviewers have complained that this film is boring and confusing for that very reason. I preferred the film's challenges and enjoyed the fact that, even as I write this review, I am still thinking about what I witnessed on screen.

With any luck, The Good Shepherd will be the beginning of a career renaissance for Robert DeNiro. It is a good film, deserving of recognition and is well worth a trip to the theatre.

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